How Vivian Howard Is Preserving the Foodways of the South

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Meet Vivian Howard

At a time when fried chicken, biscuits and gravy and other Southern-themed dishes are proliferating in restaurants across America, Vivian Howard has chosen to tell a different story about the cuisine of the Deep South.

 

In her Peabody Award-winning show on PBS, A Chef’s Life, Vivian not only documents her life raising a family and running a restaurant in eastern North Carolina, but also explores lesser-known cooking and farming traditions of the South, many of which are disappearing.

 

Vivian didn’t plan on becoming the Southern food ambassador she’s grown to be. Born to tobacco and hog farming parents, she was raised in Deep Run, North Carolina. Post-college, she moved to New York City to pursue a career in advertising and media, but soon found herself drawn the restaurant industry. She spent years cooking with some of the country’s best chefs—Wylie Dufresne and Jean-Georges Vongerichten among them—and soon was contemplating starting her own business. That was when her parents offered to help her and her husband, Ben Knight, open their own restaurant. It came with a catch, however: They’d have to move back to North Carolina.

 

Vivian and Ben took the plunge, and today they own Chef & the Farmer, a progressive eatery in Kinston, North Carolina that highlights the region’s culinary traditions in contemporary ways and has become a destination for food enthusiasts all over the country. We’re proud to offer her new line of signature sauces and seasoning rubs, inspired by the recipes featured at her restaurant.

 

We caught up with her to learn more about the backstory of A Chef’s Life, how she developed her new sauces, and the biggest Southern stereotypes she hopes to dispel.

 

Vivian Howard 2How did A Chef’s Life come about?

Vivian Howard: My food is really based around modern takes on traditional dishes. I was going around learning about these food traditions in Eastern North Carolina, and so many of them are dying. The people who do these things—make collard kraut, fruit preserves—they’re all old, and their children are not doing the same thing. So I became really fascinated with the idea of making a film about these dying food traditions. I have a friend who grew up a mile from me who’s a documentary filmmaker. I asked her if she knew anyone who would want to help me, and she said that she’d be interested in doing it. We started experimenting around one food tradition, putting up corn. My family would get hundreds and hundreds of ears of corn in early summer, blanch it all, cut it off the cob, put it in little freezer bags, and put it in the freezer so we could bring it out all year. We filmed my family doing this, and then we filmed this farmer that I work with and his corn crop, and we filmed me doing something modern with corn in the restaurant. That became our framework for making the show. National PBS said, “We think we like this, but we’re not really sure, so you need to make 13 more. Then we’ll consider distributing it.” Cynthia, the show’s director, and I went about making 13 of these. We didn’t have any money, and no guarantee that anyone would ever see them, so we did a Kickstarter campaign and raised the money that way. Everyone who worked on the whole first season of the show did not get paid. They just did it because they believed the story was important and they knew that it was going to have legs.

 

Vivian-Howard-Sauces

Vivian’s Tangy Peach Glaze, Chipotle Apple Slather and that legendary Blueberry BBQ Sauce.

 

Tell us how you wound up making your own sauces and rubs.

VH:  We have a really large fruit harvest here during the summer: blueberries, peaches, blackberries, strawberries. We get a lot of these things all at once and in large amounts, and so we’ve been preserving them in lots of different ways for years at the restaurant. What we would do is make a fruit preserve—fruit suspended in a syrup, essentially—and in the fall and winter, we’d make those preservers into sauces for meats, salad dressings or whatever. We’ve been doing this kind of thing for a long time and I always wanted to develop sauces that other people could use around it.

 

I remember the episode of A Chef’s Life when you developed the blueberry vinegar barbecue sauce, and you were very particular about how it should taste. 

VH: Honestly, it’s been very hard, because I’m very hands on, and I like to make the things that I serve and that I feed people. When you’re working with a bottler, you can’t really do that. This go-round, I sent recipes, and then they sent me a product back, and we went back and forth around ten times. It took a lot longer than I think any of us had hoped. But I just wanted it to be right. When you’re working with fruit sauces, you know, they can be too sweet. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want people to think it was just a jam or a jelly. I wanted them to work for people.

 

“The misconception is that we’re eating fried chicken all day.”—Vivian Howard, on Southern food

 

What kind of reception did you get from Eastern North Carolinians who are used to a certain type of barbecue, and a certain set of flavors?

VH: Our barbecue sauce here in Eastern North Carolina is cider vinegar, spices, and maybe a little bit of tomato product, and it’s very bracing. It’s meant to go on really fatty pork. For the home cook, it’s really hard to use successfully because it is so bracing. So when we made this blueberry sauce, just by the addition of the blueberries and their natural sugar, it balanced it more, but it still has that kind of vinegary edge. People were very responsive to it. It was familiar but also slightly different, and it didn’t compete with their memories of barbecue sauce.

 

Vivian Howard's new signature rubs.

Vivian Howard’s new signature rubs.

 

What’s one Southern food stereotype you’d like to put an end to?

VH: The most pervasive and the most dangerous is that Southern food is unhealthy. The food that I grew up eating is more often than not based on vegetables and grains, specifically dried corn and rice. We had big pieces of meat once or twice a week, and otherwise our meat was used as a condiment, kind of, to season greens or sprinkled into the batter for cornbread or something. It was not meat-focused. The misconception is that we’re all sitting down here eating fried chicken and biscuits all day.

 

Tell us about the next season of A Chef’s Life.

VH: The new season will start in September. It opens with us going to The Avett Brothers. They do the opening song for the show, so that was very cool, like two worlds colliding. We do a private dinner that is a fundraiser for an incubator farm. Incubator farms are farms that teach people how to be farmers. If you don’t own your own land, if you’ve never farmed, if you don’t know how to market your goods, you can rent a little plot of land, and it’s kind of a support system and a teaching mechanism for people who want to be farmers. Because we have a very dangerous shortage of farmers in this country. The average age of a farmer in the United States is like 72, and they’re all retiring and passing away, and we don’t have anyone to farm behind them.

 

“We have a very dangerous shortage of farmers in this country.”—Vivian Howard

 

I also go to Portland for a food festival. We go back to New York for an episode. You see me finish my book, you see me deliver my manuscript, and hopefully you’ll see the book being printed on the last episode. One of the ingredients I’m most excited about for season 4 is rabbit. We have a really wonderful woman who raises rabbits for us at the restaurant, and we go to her farm and learn all about rabbits, and what an efficient meat source they are.

 

We’ve been doing this four seasons now, and I felt like we had told a lot of stories we had to tell, but I think that this season is actually the best so far.

 

You’ve done an incredible job making sure people know the unsung work that farmers do without glorifying life on the farm.

VH: Farmers are often portrayed one of two ways in the media: One is either super cool and hipster with a very laid-back looking lifestyle, and then the other is someone with a piece of straw in their mouth and overalls on and [who is] ignorant. My parents were farmers. I grew up around a lot of farmers. I just wanted to show them for the resourceful, intelligent, hardworking people that they are.

 

Like you mentioned, you’re working on your first cookbook, Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South. What’s the update on that? 

VH: It will be published October 4. The book is set up like the show, in a lot of ways, in that all the chapters are ingredients, and each chapter starts with a story about how that ingredient has helped shape my life. The ingredients are actually ordered in the book based on the progression of my life. So it’s not alphabetical or seasonal; it’s more personal. Then after the story, there’s between five and 12 recipes in every chapter, and the first recipe in each chapter is the traditional use of that ingredient in our culture, and then from there, the recipes grow across the chapter in creativity and complexity. The last recipe in the chapter would be something that we might do in our restaurant with that ingredient.

 

See more about Vivian Howard, and check out her collection of signature sauces and seasoning rubs.

 

17 comments about “How Vivian Howard Is Preserving the Foodways of the South

  1. Abby @ Confabulation in the Kitchen

    Love Vivian’s show! I’m from the NC Piedmont, but my father in law is from Deep Run. My dad actually helped Vivian fishing in the pier in the first season of the show! Watching her talk with all of those wonderful people is exactly how I grew up, too, and while I don’t have a restaurant I am teaching my boys about their Southern heritage, too.

    Reply
  2. Bobbie Craft

    I have been hooked on the show from the start. I too grew up in the rural South where I spent my summers as a kid on my Uncle’s Dairy farm. The show takes me back and brings it back to life for me. Thanks Vivian

    Reply
  3. Dean Butts

    I have the good fortune to dine at Chef and the Farmer and let me tell you that Vivian Howard is wonderful. She is able to take local food and present it in new, creative ways. So glad the be able to enjoy her food.

    Reply
    1. Williams-Sonoma Editors Post author

      A while back, Vivian stopped into the Williams-Sonoma Test Kitchen to say hi and made us her take on a tostada, with pulled pork in a vinegar-based barbecue sauce as well as her coleslaw and cornbread. But that’s no replacement for dining at her restaurant, which is most definitely on our bucket list. We’re so envious!

      Reply
  4. George Chasse

    I grew up in the next town over from Kinston. As a transplant to central Kentucky, it is so good to see the food I grew up on treated in the manner that Vivian does. It is great to see locally sourced traditions brought forward to new audiences.

    Reply
  5. Deb Dratch

    I grew up in eastern North Carolina about an hour from Kinston. watching the local farmers and cooks Vivian visits with is like reliving my childhood. Al her tv show guests are my peeps. I recognize almost all of the eastern NC foods that she discusses and cooks. It’s like a visit home, watching the show. I have plans to take my 85 year old mom to Chef and the Farmer. Can’t wait!

    Reply
  6. Colleen

    Love Vivian and the show! Went into the Cherry Creek store in Denver yesterday to purchase, asked for Vivian Howard’s sauce, and was told, “We don’t carry that.” Very disappointed!

    Reply
  7. Laura Donna

    My husband discovered A Chef’s Life and we have been watching it for dessert after our rotating main course TV drama at least four nights a week. We are long time food TV people and this may be our favorite show to date. We are in love with the food and the luscious photography, but more than that, with the genuine personalities of Vivian, Ben, their staff, parents and the farming friends and neighbors who contribute their gifts of produce, livestock, seafood and family cooking secrets to the show. I LOVE that Vivian treats these people as respected and beloved suppliers and teachers, and does not (sorry) like so many other cooking show hosts, use them like props and extras. The energy is completely different. We also appreciate the honest portrayal of marriage, little kids and the challenges and disappointments of a sometimes difficult labor pool. There is a lot of gritty truth here, but never sensationalized – we feel like close friends of the family. We would like to apologize for laughing so hard when Theo hit Flo with a shovel. It was raw, it was real, it was funny. Plus he didn’t really mean it. Love you Vivian and Ben, love your art.

    Reply
  8. Terry Presenza

    Hi! I purchased a couple of bottles of the peach barbecue sauce which was back ordered to mid-September. When can I expect to receive my order?

    Reply
  9. Ali B

    March 27, 2017
    Love Vivian, family, friends, staff & restaurant 🙂 2 questions: will there be a season five this year? when will get to see more of The Boiler Room & its menus? Also, is Ben still managing it more than painting? Ali B

    Reply

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